Hello, Mr. Burton…
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s love story is the stuff of legend. It’s such a sacred tale that it merits hushed, reverent tones in Hollywood, but for the most part it doesn’t seem to be a touchable subject by filmmakers. Lifetime tried, though, in their 2012 TV biopic, Liz & Dick,“tried” very much being the operative word.
The film starts out on August 5th, 1984, and Richard Burton (Grant Bowler) is sitting up in bed writing a letter to Elizabeth Taylor (Lindsay Lohan). He’s reminiscing about the day they met. Elizabeth is lounging by the pool looking ravishing, of course.
Then we see Burton and Taylor sitting in directors’ chairs against a black background chummily bantering about how the pool meeting was a life-altering event. I almost expected to see James Lipton chortling in the corner.
Eh. Indecisive narrative structures such as these are precisely why Lifetime movies are routinely made fun of. James Lipton or “Dear Liz.” Make up your mind, Lifetime.
And let’s not forget what else makes Lifetime movies objects of scorn: the acting and writing. Grant Bowler is a somewhat decent Richard Burton, but Lindsay Lohan…seriously? I remember Taylor as a lovely, graceful Englishwoman with a light, airy voice, but Lohan plays her like Marge Simpson would play the role if Marge Simpson was a Bel Air barfly. These are convoluted similies, but they’re the kinds of thoughts that pop up where Lifetime movies are concerned.
Anyway, the film’s flashbacks really start in 1961, when Burton got the call to make Cleopatra. He and Taylor can’t stand each other, and they spar like wildcats until their first love scene. Then they won’t stay apart. Liz is married to Eddie Fisher and Richard’s married to his wife, Sybil, who is the mother of his two children.
The film can be summed up thusly: Elizabeth and Richard have a wildly passionate love affair during Cleopatra, which they continue through their next film, The V.I.P.s. Elizabeth divorces Eddie, Richard divorces Sybil. Elizabeth and Richard marry each other, and they spend, spend, spend, all while avoiding the paparazzi. When their funds are low, they buy a yacht because Richard thinks it’s cheaper. They fight. They lock their doors. Richard drinks like a fish. So does Elizabeth, who also smokes like a bad chimney. They buy each other more fancy presents. Richard cheats on Elizabeth and they divorce, only to briefly remarry a few years later. Even though they can’t live together, they’re still there for each other until the end, when Richard dies peacefully curled up on his bed. Elizabeth, in tears, goes alone to his grave, where she says, “Forever an ocean.” over and over.
That’s it. That’s the whole movie. It’s cheap drama. Very cheap. The lines sound like they’re straight out of a dollar store romance novel, and most of the worst ones belong to Lohan because Bowler does get to recite bits of poetry now and then. Anyway, a few choice examples:
“I want more.”
“I’m bored! I’m so bored!”
“You have to understand, we enjoy fighting. We really do. We’re masters of the art.”
“I need a ring. A big ring.”
“Liz wants to play.” (This was uttered right before Liz gets hot and heavy with Richard while saxophone music slinks in the background. Not even kidding. It’s that clichéd.)
I knew going in that it was going to be a stinker, because Lifetime movies invariably are, but even so, ten minutes into Liz & Dick I felt like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.
By way of a brain cleanser, I read Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s excellent book, Furious Love, and I feel like carving the major aspects of Liz & Dick into tiny little bits. It’s a Lifetime movie, so it won’t feel any pain.
Within a few pages of Furious Love, I noticed Lifetime’s first big fail: The real Liz liked to live dangerously. Liz & Dick portrays her as someone who lounges around yelling about being bored and expecting everyone to entertain her, but that was definitely not the case. This woman was a keen equestrienne and adventurer, probably because her life was so controlled. She looked for chances to hop out of the MGM fishbowl whenever she could.
It’s no shock that Liz & Dick gets the Burton-Taylor relationship so very wrong, or the dynamics surrounding it. One point the film fails to mention is that Liz’s first two marriages were all but by arrangement with MGM. While this doesn’t excuse her affairs, it does put her husband-collecting into perspective: In part, it was an act of rebellion. By the time she met Burton, Fisher’s and Taylor’s relationship had devolved into his being her caretaker. He would try to curtail her drinking, make sure she was getting enough sleep, and so on. It wouldn’t have taken much to slip in a little of this into Liz & Dick; as it was, Fisher was just there. Kinda.
That’s why, later in the film, when Burton asks Taylor at a party who she loves, it falls rather flat. Before I read Furious Love, I thought it was third-grade dramatic license on the part of Lifetime, but no, the incident really happened. Only differences were, the real Fisher already knew Burton and Taylor were having an affair–he asked her point-blank, and she admitted it. Burton proceeded to verbally wail on Fisher at the party, until the room was empty and they were both nursing brandies. Fisher’s response was to go to Sybil who pretended nonchalance, but in the movie, Fisher just sits there looking like the proverbial deer in headlights.
On Burton’s end of things, the film doesn’t capture the mixture of admiration and revulsion he felt when he first encountered Taylor. He was in awe of her standing as a celebrity and the fact that she had her favorite chili flown in from Chasen’s in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he had left a successful run of Camelot on Broadway with Julie Andrews, so his own star wasn’t too shabby, although less fancy. He didn’t become enraptured with Taylor when they played their first love scene; it was watching the dailies that won him over.
Very unshockingly, the real Burton was also much more self-aware than Lifetime’s Burton. He freely admitted in his diary (read excerpts here) when his bad tempers and rows with Taylor were his fault. In the film it wasn’t the case. The two of them just go bashing and crashing with no perspective. Burton was also very conscious of the impact their affair was having on others, and while he felt guilty about his family’s pain, the paparazzi was fair game. He called his and Taylor’s affair Le Scandale by way of a sly dig at the dogged hunger of the gossip columnists.
Liz & Dick not only glosses over many of the facts of the Burton and Taylor saga, but it leaves out what made the relationship work as long as it did. These two may have fought like cats and dogs, but at the same time they respected each other. Taylor loved how well-read Burton was, and unfortunately the film portrays her as looking bored while gifting Burton with the entire Everyman’s Library collection.
Burton saw Taylor as a demigoddess. He understood Taylor’s exquisite taste in jewelry, and having some taste of his own, bought her many prestigious pieces. La Peregrina is one of the most famous, but it was a Valentine’s Day present, not a birthday gift as shown in the film. It’s such an important necklace that Burton certainly wouldn’t have casually tossed it at Taylor with an offhand “Here’s another trinket.”
There were some things Liz & Dick got right, though. Burton was a heavy drinker, so much so that he had a fully-equipped bar in his dressing room, which he nicknamed “Burton’s Bar.” It went where he went, such as to the set of Cleopatra. And he was able to recite yards of poetry right off the bat. The costumes looked sorta right, although Taylor’s jewelry looks exceedingly fake, especially when viewed in 4K. Sigh.
These few points aren’t enough to save the movie, so I would recommend skipping it and going right to Furious Love. Your living room pillows will thank you.
For more regaling about Richard Burton, please visit Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thanks for hosting, Gill–it was great! Thanks for reading, all. New Page To Screen coming up tomorrow…
Kashner, Sam and Nancy Schoenberger. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Romance of the Century. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.